21 March 2017
‘Poetry – with its ancient history, its musicality, and its attention to symbol and metaphor – runs through all of us. Rooted in oral tradition, poetry is deeply connected to our collective humanity. And poetry is also a resilient and long-lasting political tool that has been used worldwide by dissident voices calling out for change. At PEN it’s impossible for us to celebrate World Poetry Day without also recognising that there are those for whom speaking out in verse has resulted in imprisonment. This year we are highlighting the cases of three such poets: Amanuel Asrat, Dareen Tatour, and Liu Xia. We urge you to take action today and to join us in appealing for justice for each of them. Details of how to speak out can be found below.
This World Poetry Day, PEN International is also honoured to share our Conversation with Enoh Meyomesse. Just two years ago Enoh Meyomesse was one of the poets for whom – on World Poetry Day – we urged you to take action. Now he has been released and lives in Germany where he continues to write poetry, full of characteristic refrains and inspired by his political surroundings. It brings us great joy to share with you his reflections on creativity, imprisonment, and the power of poetry.’
President, PEN International
Conversation with Enoh Meyomesse
When and why did you start writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in 1971. One evening at home in Douala, Cameroon, when I was still in high school, my mother handed me Anthology of Black Poetry, a book from the family library. I discovered poetry through the writers of the literary movement of the ‘Negritude’, created by three poets: the Caribbean poet Aimé Césaire, the Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, and the Guyanese poet Léon Gontran Damas. A poem in this book particularly marked me;
I thank you God for having created me Black
I am happy
Of the shape of my head
Made to carry the World,
Of the shape of my nose
Which must smell all the wind of the World,
Of the shape of my legs
Ready to run all the stages of the World.
The poem was written in 1956 by the most famous poet of Côte d’Ivoire, Bernard Dadier. At the annual school festival in 1971, I read two poems from this book during a cultural evening in front of all my peers. At the end of my reading the room applauded for a long time. I was very moved. I can say that my attraction to poetry really started that evening. The day after, I had begun awkwardly to sketch poems in my turn. Since then, I have not stopped.
You wrote some brilliant poetry whilst in prison. What did the process of writing those poems (and knowing that people were reading them) mean to you whilst you were inside?
The prison was a wonderful place of inspiration for me. First, when you are there, you discover life differently. Everyone abandons you for fear of being arrested. All that remains are the very close friends and family that visit you.
In prison, you are totally idle from morning to night. In order not to be bored, what can you do other than write if you like to do it? Fortunately, there was a library and a computer room in this prison. So I spent my days reading the few books I found in the library and writing on the sheets of paper brought to me by friends who visited me. When I’d finished writing a poem, I’d give it to a friend to get it out of the prison. One of these friends, Bergeline Domou, sent my poems to another friend in the United States, Patrice Nganang. And he translated them into English and made them circulate throughout the world. It is in this way that these poems have reached PEN. But I did not know that they were sent out of Cameroon. I was not aware of that. One day, Bergeline Domou visited me and brought me these poems already translated into English, printed and published in England. Frankly, when I discovered this book, I had tears in my eyes, so great was the emotion.
What is the focus of your creative writing now, and has the experience of writing poetry changed for you now you are no longer in prison?
Yes, I no longer write about prison; I moved on. Living in Germany, I found out about the suffering of the Germans during the war, and it’s inspired me to write many poems.
What would be your message for World Poetry Day?
Poetry is a formidable weapon hidden in the pen; it can deliver you, it can save you; it can change the people; it can open your eyes; it can open your ears; It can open your minds; it can make you discover that other people are also human beings worthy of consideration; it has the magic power to do this in just a few words …
Yesterday was the International Day of Happiness. Can you recommend a poem that explores happiness or joy?
Yes, of course. This is one of mine.
In the near future
The gardens will bloom
You will leave your home
The clothes will become happy
You will go to kiss the sun
The corsages will replace the heavy sweaters
You will see it with your eyes
The skirts will replace the thick Jeans
It will be very beautiful
And the sandals will replace the hot shoes of that time when the cold
was biting biting biting biting biting cruelly the skin
And the toes will proclaim their freedom after long months embalmed
The cheerfulness will replace the gloom in the hearts
Spring is coming
You will go out of your house
Because love and joy
Will sing in the street